October 2, 2011

Eyes in the Subway

Whether walking down the street, sitting in the subway, standing in an elevator, it is standard practice for a New Yorker to avoid looking into the eyes of a stranger. But in the Chambers Street subway station, artists Andrew Ginzel and Kristin Jones have created Oculus (1998) a marvel of a work consisting of 301 mosaic eyes, embedded in the walls of the station corridors. I know I've seen these before, but for some reason yesterday they entered my conscious sight with a startled bang.

Walking along, I saw eyes alone and in pairs, and in different architectural surroundings. Each eye was obviously unique in shape and color, the eye of a particular individual, which made me pay attention and notice their differences. In the link above it is explained that Jones and Ginzel photographed the 301 individuals, making these abbreviated portraits.

The images were translated into beautifully colored, rough stone mosaics by Rinaldo Piras. Mosaic is a perfect medium for the difficult life the art leads underground. There's an active art program in the New York City subways, and you can see an overview here.

A surprising view through a decorative fence at two eyes high on a wall might lead me to start thinking about the all-seeing eyes of the Thought Police, but the humanity and specific personality of each eye tells me something different.

Instead what I see are portraits, individuals saying "look at me, understand me; I am the person across from you in the subway car you daren't look at; I am you."


  1. thank you for this share. I love mosaic. I have tried my hand, with some success, with micro mosaic and hope to do a big one someday. But these eyes are startling/ haunting. they could be missed if in a hurry and seem to be just out normal visual height. Did you know Jack Beal did mosaics for (perhaps) the Times Square station. Persephone rising to spring.

  2. Thanks for posting this wonderful public art in NYC subways! It's a reminder that someone made them too...a person!
    I am reminded too of the mosaics in Ravenna Italy and the impact they had in their time.. a la newspaper since 80% of public then illiterate and passed on information through the oral tradition.

  3. Wonderful. Reminds me of early Roman mosaics. I love a random piece of art scattered here and there. Keeps me soulful.

  4. I'm pleased that you all liked seeing this wonderful work. I too was reminded of ancient mosaics; it's great to see the technique used in such a modern setting.

  5. The frequency of subway use by paranoid schizophrenics must have dropped significantly.
    There are reasons why people shoved together in tight spaces don't make eye contact. I find this idea tactless and crude.
    No offense meant.

  6. Martyn, of course we don't look at each other for very good reason. I was writing about this work as art, as metaphor. The "look at me" was meant for the mosaics, not for the strangers around us, though it *is a good idea for us to have empathy, isn't it?